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Memoirs of a Geisha: The Film

Almost four years after I read the novel by Arthur Golden, I finally watched the movie that was said to cater toward American audience, or non-Asians in general. Starring Li Gong, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang, and Youki Kudoh, the film invited a dispute over its credibility on the fact that three Chinese actresses were playing geishas—traditional, female Japanese entertainers whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music and dance. The political tension between China and Japan in 2005 might have fueled the casting controversy in which some of the most prominent roles, including Sayuri, Mahema, and Hatsumomo, did not go to Japanese actresses (although it’s agreed upon that the cast is box office-proof internationally).

Memoirs of a Geisha revolves around a young girl, named Chiyo, who is sold into the life of a geisha and her struggle as a geisha to find love. Chiyo’s road to become a geisha was thorny. She was constant the target of bullying from a senior geisha who hated anyone more successful than she was and who thrived to rid of all prospective rivals. Even though the senior geisha had falsely accused her, faulted her, and rendered her debut a standstill, her determination to become a geisha did not spring from the inventive to revenge on her enemy. The book focuses on Sayuri’s struggle and her search for love, hoping that one day, as a successful, well-sought geisha, she will become part of the life of the chairman, who had shown her kindness and gave her a handkerchief as a keepsake. The movie, dropping the details of a geisha training and the nuances of artistic rituals, emphasizes the intricate relations between four women who aspire to become geishas of their times.

Despite strong performances, the screenplay was lacking, the characters not engaging, the story (145 minutes) seems to have dragged on and, in deleting some of the details that have proven to be indispensable, it affords no real insights on being a geisha, other than the vicious competition and effacement between geishas. If Arthur Golden’s novel is meant to be an epic drama, the movie presents itself as an overripe melodrama that climaxes at the outcome of feuding geishas. Unlike the novel, the movie really lacks the drive.